One Is Enough
In his review of Jon Stallworthy’s biography (LRB, 9 March), Ian Hamilton begins by asking, ‘Why did Louis MacNeice have to wait thirty years for a biography?’ and then doesn’t sufficiently go into the tangles of this search for a biographer, as well as being less than fair to Stall worthy in his account of Stallworthy’s supposed ‘reverential’ attitude to E.R. Dodds (MacNeice’s first literary executor) and the project itself.
After MacNeice’s death in September 1963, some assumed that Dodds himself would write a biography. Initially, though, his work was taken up, rightly, with editing, first, MacNeice’s fragmented autobiography, The Strings Are False, and then the Collected Poems. At various times over the succeeding years, however, Dodds and MacNeice’s widow, Hedli, approached and invited Goronwy Rees, Michael and Edna Longley and Dan Davin, each of whom spent some time exploring the possibilities, but in each case not getting very far – partly because of the vague difficulties which seemed to present themselves through MacNeice’s sister, Lady Nicholson.
Dodds himself felt it was too late for him not only to take on such a task, but also that his successor as literary executor should be appointed. I have a letter to me (dated 18 November 1976) from Hedli MacNeice, in which she wrote: ‘Louis in his last unsigned will nominated you to be his Literary Executor. Therefore I infer that he must have spoken to you about this – Is this so? I would like this to be settled before my very dear friend Professor Dodds moves on. He has indicated more than once that I must put forward his successor.’ At this time Dodds was eighty-three.
MacNeice had indeed approached me, early in 1963, saying that he was drawing up a final will, that Dodds was now too old, and asking me whether I would be his literary executor (having, he said, havered between Ted Hughes and myself, but coming to the – it struck me – faintly damaging conclusion that I was ‘more businesslike’). This last will was never properly executed, and MacNeice died within the year. Dodds died in 1979. All the other people who were variously involved are also now dead (Hedli MacNeice, Goronwy Rees, Dan Davin, Lady Nicholson) – with the exception of myself, Stall worthy and Michael and Edna Longley. I wonder whether the Longleys can throw light on this long-drawn-out story.
As things turned out, I feel glad not to have been landed with two complex executorships: one (Philip Larkin’s) has been quite enough. But I also feel that Ian Hamilton, whose Keepers of the Flame entertainingly explored the whole historical matter of literary executors and their actions and responsibilities, has in his review of Stallworthy’s Louis MacNeice cut a few corners and hasn’t properly acknowledged what lay behind the time-lag between MacNeice’s death and Stall worthy’s book.
Incidentally, it isn’t true that Dodds ‘introduced MacNeice to Auden’: they had met independently, in 1928 or earlier, in Oxford.
Ian Hamilton writes: ‘Introduced’ was the wrong word perhaps. On page 157 Jon Stallworthy writes: ‘Wystan and Louis had, of course, been acquaintances at Oxford. Louis had since given Auden’s Poems (1928) a respectful review, and meeting again under the Dodds’s hospitable roof, they became friends.’
The Great Copyright Disaster
David Lewisohn (Letters, 9 March) wonders what effect European copyright extension will have on the availability in this country of American scholarly editions of English writers out of copyright in America 50 years after their death, but still with 20 years’ protection in the United Kingdom. He should know that British, not merely American, scholarly editions of English writers are likely to be available in the United States but not in this country. Since European copyright extension attracted very influential behind-the-scenes support here (from literary estates and music-companies, among others) it would be useful to know whose interests this serves. However, at the time of writing, the answer to Mr Lewisohn’s question is still unclear. The Patent Office has yet to make known its proposals for the relevant legislation which will come into force this July.
Some consequences of ending copyright protection at the author’s death, as suggested by Peter Campbell (Letters, 9 March), will be felt when the author is still alive. For example: A. is a 72-year-old man who smokes 60 a day, drinks a pint of whisky before lunch and a pint of gin after dinner. He has had two heart attacks and carries a piece of shrapnel dangerously close to his left ventricle. He rides a motorbike at great speed and flies a light aircraft when sober. He feels as fit as a flea and looks forward to another ten years of dangerous living. He has a brilliant new novel to sell to his publisher. Under the new dispensation his editor consults the in-house medic. She declares that A. will, on the balance of probability, not live to the autumn season when his book would be published, and almost certainly not long enough to see the Booker Prize ceremony, or the paperback edition. He is likely to be out of copyright before his publisher makes any money out of him, and is therefore declared a non-viable author. In the event he lives to be 94 and his last three unpublished novels are brought out immediately after his death by Wordsworth Classics, to universal acclaim.
Less dramatically, a promising but commercially marginal book by a new writer may be ruled out by some extra-curricular activity which places him or her at risk. It may be argued that the ‘risky’ author should reasonably be prepared to accept a lower advance, and then earn the royalties for as long as he or she lives. But a publisher first decides whether the publication of a given book is a viable proposition. If it is, then everything else is a matter of negotiation, if not, then the author’s willingness to accept deferred payment is practically irrelevant. Also, every author knows that the advance is an indication of how much money the publisher expects to make from a book, and therefore how much effort they put into selling it. If they pay next to nothing, in general they do next to nothing.
For those authors who do get signed up a different prospect looms – it will become a matter of financial necessity for their publishers to keep them alive for as long as possible. What effect might this have on that great institution the publisher’s lunch? Will my editor continue to consume unwise quantities of wine and food (in that order), while he offers to toss me a green salad and pour me a mineral water? This apocalyptic vision is surely beyond human contemplation.
Your pseudonymous reviewer of François Mitterrand’s biography (LRB, 9 March) inserts – for no discernible reason, since it connects to nothing else in the review – a paragraph in which it’s alleged that Marguerite Duras ‘never subsequently made any mystery of the fact … that she felt no scruples about torturing the imprisoned collaborators over whom she was watching’. Presumably this refers to the short story ‘Albert of the Capitals’ in her collection La Douleur (1985). Now certainly there are suggestions of identification between the author and the woman who in this work of fiction tortures a Gestapo informer, but it is hardly conclusive evidence of what Duras actually did in 1944. ‘Jean-Pierre Chapelas’ is therefore being somewhat economical with the truth. Moreover, the story is precisely about the scruples felt by the protagonist and the effort she makes to overcome them.
Say It Loud
Kiffin Rockwell’s statement (Letters, 23 February) that the Fourteenth Amendment was never ratified but simply proclaimed is a myth. The amendment was ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states. Several, however, were Reconstruction legislatures in former Confederate states ratifying after earlier legislatures had rejected. While the legitimacy of such ratifications may be questioned on this ground, it is patent nonsense to say that the amendment was ‘simply proclaimed’. Rockwell’s further statement that the amendment ‘could not have been ratified’ can mean only the following: the Reconstruction legislatures were so illegitimate that the former Confederate states had no legislatures. Hence they could not at that time ratify a constitutional amendment. The ‘legitimate’ whites-only Southern legislatures preceding and following the Reconstruction legislatures would, of course, never have ratified the Fourteenth Amendment. Of course.
Ian R. Macneil of Barra
Aunty Selma is not the only one living in never-never-land; the LRB should have taken a cue from the New Yorker and refused to publish such an array of misinformation and just plain bias as Robert Fisk’s ‘Remaining Issues’ (LRB, 23 February). It is not a matter of censorship, it is a matter of providing an accurate account of events. Have we become so insensitive to wholesale slaughter whether in an Israeli bus station, a New York office building, a French airliner or the streets of Cairo, that merely deleting the terms ‘Islamic’ or ‘Islamic terror’ from reports of suicide bombings will make them appear more objective? The Arab-Israeli conflict has gone on for too long; any attempt to resolve it, however limited, ought to be encouraged – unless, of course, one assumes that only one of the participants can (or ought to) emerge from the slaughter. It is a well-known fact, a platitude almost, that at the end of any war there are no victors; this much should have been learned from past history. The State of Israel, like the Kingdom of Jordan, is a 20th-century creation intended to resolve a problem and provide people with their own territory; just as a State of Palestine can be one, if they so choose. Is it a matter of bias to hope that peace in the Middle East is not an impossible dream? In the meantime, while I recognise the LRB’s right to publish as they see fit, I see no reason to support such scurrilous tracts as Mr Fisk’s and request that my subscription be terminated because I can no longer rely on its accuracy or objectivity.
I take it that Nicolas Walter, despiser of academic language and literature departments (Letters, 23 February), does not know how much you have to care for books if you are to persist in squeezing into academia at this time; thinks that Auden and Lowell and Toni Morrison and Douglas Dunn were being foolish, mercenary or whimsical when they agreed to associate themselves with university departments; thinks that Johnson and Coleridge and Seamus Heaney shouldn’t have squandered their energies on all those critical essays; can go through the shelves of Dillons’ Lit Crit department without finding any evidence of feeling for culture or anything to enhance his own understanding of it; is unaware of the extent to which academia fuels and sustains literary publishing in general; thinks that the thousands of young people who unaccountably wish to spend three years thinking and talking about syntax and metaphors should be stopped from doing so; has never read William Empson or Christopher Ricks; has some special motivation for his animus which he would be reluctant to disclose; wishes that the LRB was more like the Literary Review; is a friend of John Major; and is looking for trouble?
Good at Spelling
J.F. Fuggles thinks I can’t tell my âne from my anus (Letters, 9 March). But I’d hoped my pedantic parenthesis ‘(in Findlen’s translation)’ would have sufficiently indicated the American source of such phrases as ‘thrusting knowledge up the ass’. Contributors to Lynn Hunt’s The Invention of Pornography all prefer ‘ass’ to ‘arse’: their preference, not mine.
Since I’ve paid twice for Alan Bennett’s piece on The Madness of King George (it was reprinted in the Guardian) I find I have just that extra bit of animus to object to his use of ‘fuck hutch’ to describe the housing estates surrounding Banbury (LRB, 9 February). The term better suits the back rooms of pre-reconstruction Windsor Castle which we are ushered round at the beginning of the article. In fact Bennett doesn’t imagine these quarters, ‘cramped though they were, to have been particularly squalid’, but he does imagine as much of Middle England suburban architecture. I hadn’t realised his non-republicanism was so emphatic. I come to Bennett from, and revert from Bennett to, reading his Polish near-contemporary Miron Bialoszewski, a ninth-floor poet who never gets crueller than calling his block of flats an ‘anthill’. Bialoszewski is very hard to compare with other Poles (as a hero he’s not exactly unsung, but no one’s sure which key to sing him in), let alone an English writer, but Bennett is the closest I can get. Can any of your readers get closer or, better, help me to translate Bialoszewski?
Everything Must Go
Enjoyed R.W. Johnson’s piece on Will Hutton’s phillipic The State We’re in (LRB, 9 March). There’s a splendid deadpan joke in the way Cape have priced this searing indictment of economic wishful thinking at a rosetinted £16.99. Compare Heinemann flogging Michael Ridpath’s thriller Free to Trade for a macho, no-bullshit £10, rather than a moron-enticing £9.99.